There was a time when chivalry and honor were understood by all; even those who lacked one or both. Those were the days when men would die to protect the honor of their family. Men would come to the aid of a lady in distress under any circumstances. To challenge a man’s integrity, his wife’s chastity, his father’s courage, or to display arrogant political differences could invite a deadly challenge; a duel.
Unlike European sword duels, the U.S. developed the duel by pistol.
Usually, challenges were delivered in writing by one or more close friends who acted as “seconds”. The challenge, written in formal language, provided the grievances and a demand for satisfaction. The challenged party then had the choice of accepting or refusing the challenge. A refusal would almost always be an act of cowardice.
It was the job of the seconds to make all of the arrangements in advance, including how long the fight would last and what conditions would end the duel. In pistol duels, the number of shots to be permitted and the range were outlined. The seconds would ensure the ground chosen gave no unfair advantage to either party. A doctor or surgeon was usually arranged to be on hand. Other rules and protocol could go into minute details that might seem odd in the modern world, such as the dress code (duels were often formal affairs), the number and names of any other witnesses to be present, and if refreshments would be served.
At a given signal, often the dropping of a handkerchief, the duelers could advance and fire at will. This reduced the possibility of cheating, as neither dueler had to trust the other not to turn too soon
The two crucial factors for choosing the field of honor were isolation, to avoid discovery and interruption by the authorities; and jurisdictional ambiguity, to avoid potential legal consequences. Islands in rivers dividing two jurisdictions were popular dueling sites. The cliffs below Weehawken on the Hudson River was where Vice President Aaron Burr fatally shot former Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton. (Imagine Vice President Mike Pence and former Secretary of State John Kerry squaring off in this manner…..)
These two famous American politicians were not the only duelers in America. On September 22, 1842, future President Abraham Lincoln, at the time an Illinois state legislator, met to duel with state auditor James Shields. But, their seconds intervened and persuaded them against it.
Future President Andrew Jackson, would not allow interference with his many duels. He took personal attacks on his and his wife’s honor very seriously. Thus, Jackson fought several duels. Some of these included the May 30, 1806, duel with Charles Dickinson, a famous dueler himself. Jackson killed the man even though Jackson was suffering himself from a chest wound which caused him a lifetime of pain. Shortly thereafter, Jackson also reportedly engaged in a bloodless duel with a lawyer (probably a criminal defense lawyer), and in 1803 came very near dueling with the famous dueler, John Sevier. Jackson also engaged in a frontier brawl (not a duel) with Thomas Hart Benton in 1813.
Over the years, duels were outlawed in the U.S. They are obviously illegal today. But, when I hear of all the personal insults, extremely rude and arrogant behavior, and blistering attacks made by politicians (and other people) against one another and third parties, I wonder if some of these folks would behave differently if they lived in the 1800’s.
I do not believe that dueling should be legal today. I do not condone, advocate, or encourage violence in an unlawful manner. But, it is interesting to consider the following questions for academic purposes only.
How would the tone of political interactions change if dueling was legal today?
Would arrogant, reckless, and insulting people involved in political activity find a sense of manners, choose their words more carefully, or show a higher level of respect for those with opposing viewpoints?
Would U.S. Senate hearings, where senators are perched high above anyone in the room, become less of a modern-day Inquisition if the witness could challenge a senator to a duel?
How would some of our modern day political figures, who are anything but gentlemen or ladies, respond to a duel?
These are interesting questions to ponder. Regarding the last question, there are probably few men or women today who would utter the words, “Challenge Accepted.”
Jason W. Swindle Sr.